Higher Education is a Public Good
| Thank you, Shawn, for
that introduction. I am proud of my contributions, but I also think I
am rather typical of the dedicated and well-qualified professors
and librarians who work tirelessly on our public campuses. Many with
qualifications leave each year for other institutions where they are
respected and compensated.
Like many who stay behind, I love my work and my students, but I am very tired of being punished for my loyalty. Leaving the state should not be the only way to find fair compensation and a modicum of respect.
Faculty pay is not my main focus today, however. Instead, I am delighted to speak about the incredible students we have at our public colleges and the great work that we are doing with them.
Several years ago, a very nice man I’ll call Tom contacted me. Tom had advertised for a professional to do computerized mapping projects for his South Shore town. Fifty people had applied, and four of his finalists were geography graduates from Bridgewater State College. He was calling me because three of them – Garrett, Lisa, and Dawn – had given my name as a reference. I was grateful that he did not push me to select among these three smart, hard-working, and personable young people. I endorsed all three; he had to make the tough choice among them, and he hired Garrett.
More recently, Garrett himself called – he was in charge of the program now, and was looking for someone to complete a special mapping project. I sent him Abbey, another smart, hard-working and personable geography grad. She completed the work and is now in California, serving her country as an environmental planner and educator in Americorps. Garrett has taken a more senior position in another town, and I continue to enjoy seeing all of these grads in a variety of professional and volunteer roles.
This story would be unremarkable if it had taken place in almost any other state. When I was working in higher education in Ohio, Arizona, and Texas, public institutions were the main players in higher education, and their successful graduates were everywhere. Even governors were proud to send their children to public colleges in these states. Yes, governors sent their children to public colleges… In fact, you may have heard of one such governor’s child – Jenna Bush, who attends the University of Texas. No child of a Massachusetts governor would ever end up in such a place!
But Jenna Bush is there because public higher education is better supported in Texas than it is in Massachusetts. Indeed, it is better supported in almost every state. And since the 2001 recession, when most states have had to make some cuts, no state has cut public higher education more deeply than has Massachusetts.
This brings me back to Tom, that manager who called about my students. Before he called me, he had called a friend who teaches geography a private university. You see, as a life-long Bay Stater, he needed help with the notion that a state college could turn out such sharp graduates.
To his credit, Tom was willing to learn, and it paid off for his agency. I hope that our governor and legislators are ready to do the same. I hope they are ready to learn about the great things that are going on in state colleges, community colleges, and UMass, despite the hostile environment in which we operate. When I told my colleagues that I would be speaking here today, they were eager to share their own stories of state-college successes. In the arts, sciences, and professional programs, our students are winning national awards and competitions, presenting their work at competitive national meetings, and contributing directly to their communities through internships and class projects. Many are going directly from state colleges to prestigious graduate and professional programs. I encourage you to browse the web site of any community college, state college, or UMass campus to see the great things our students, faculty members, and librarians are achieving. Better yet, just visit the campuses and learn first-hand.
I am very glad that students organized today’s rally, even though most are too busy with their studies and outside work to have attended. For years, faculty members have tried to protect students from the battles we face, but I now realize that underpaid and disrespected faculty members are merely pawns in a broader battle. That battle is a class war between working students and governing elites who do not think working families deserve a real education.
If we are to avoid an educational class divide in this state, then it is imperative that excellence and affordability be maintained.
Excellence depends upon the thousands of dedicated and highly qualified professors, librarians, and support staff who serve our public institutions being compensated fairly and treated with dignity. If these professionals are asked to give up academic freedoms that they could expect elsewhere, while continuing to be woefully underpaid, they will not stay.
Affordability depends on reversing the shameful decline in state financial support that has required our colleges and university to raise fees, even as they have trimmed budgets. Think about this: every time a college raises fees by ten dollars, each student on that campus will spend another hour or two working at a restaurant or hardware store, instead of in the library or science lab. Is that what we really want?
It is time to stop being dazzled by the bright lights of this region’s famous and out-of-reach private schools, and to start making a genuine commitment to the students who already live here – such as Lisa, Dawn, Garrett, Abbey, my new friend Shawn, and the other students you see in this room. Their commitment to their own education is a commitment to our common future. They are working around the clock to prepare themselves to be our future teachers, managers, scientists, nurses, small-business owners, police officers, legislators, ... and governors! Their education is a common good, worthy of our support. If we do not make a stronger commitment to them, we do not deserve to be called a “Commonwealth.”
Thank you very much.
Dr. James Hayes-Bohanan is a working-class kid from rural Virginia, who is now Associate Professor and incoming Chair of Geography at Bridgewater State College, where he is also the founding coordinator of the Latin American and Caribbean Studies Program.
He holds degrees in geography from the University of Maryland, Miami University of Ohio, and the University of Arizona. He has taught at the college level for 18 years, and has broad professional experience in the field of environmental geography. He has enjoyed working with Bridgewater State College students in local field settings, in Vermont, in Cuba, and even in the Brazilian Amazon.
He publishes on a wide variety of topics, is frequently invited to speak at regional and international conferences, and is recognized throughout Massachusetts as a leader in international education and distance learning.
He resides next door to Bridgewater State College with his daughter Paloma and his wife Pamela, who is a Librarian and Visiting Professor of Spanish at the college.
He is here today because of his growing frustration with low pay for faculty members, growing fees for students, and a general climate of disrespect for education and educators in Massachusetts.